A New Paradigm

Strength for lasting change

Mark A. Finley
A New Paradigm
Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

This article is based on a sermon at Living Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church on September 13, 2019. Elements of the oral presentation have been retained.—Editors.

John Wesley, the famed Methodist preacher, was almost in despair. He did not have the faith to continue preaching. He was exhausted, and his health was failing. When death stared him in the face, he was fearful and found little comfort in his religion. He confided in a friend that he was ready to give up the ministry. On May 24, 1738, he opened his Bible about 5:00 in the morning and came across these words in 2 Peter 1:4: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature.” Have you ever noticed that at times of your greatest despair or deepest trial, God leads you to just the right Bible passage you need at that moment to give you encouragement? Hope began to dawn in Wesley’s heart.

That evening he reluctantly attended a meeting at Aldersgate Chapel in London. Someone read from Luther’s well-known Preface to the Epistle to Romans. John Wesley sat in that simple chapel that night in rapt attention. Later he wrote these words in his journal. “About 8:45 p.m. while Luther was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”1

Let us consider what Paul’s Epistle to the Romans teaches about victorious Christian living.

How Are You Walking?

Romans 8:1 tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” The word for condemnation means a judgment against someone, including the penalty following the sentence. What Paul is saying is that in Christ we have been delivered from the old order of bondage, slavery, and condemnation to a new life of pardon, power, and liberty. He then continues by describing two ways of life: life in the flesh and life in the Spirit.

What does Paul mean by the expression “walking in the flesh”? Paul is not using flesh simply in the sense of the body, as in “flesh and blood.” He really means human nature in all its weakness and vulnerability to sin. To live according to the flesh is to live a life dominated by the dictates and desires of sinful human nature instead of a life dominated by the dictates and the love of God. The flesh is the lower side of humanity’s nature. It has to do with the inclinations, passions, drives, and appetites of our carnal, sinful, selfish nature.

By contrast, Paul highlights walking according to the Spirit. Paul says in this passage that at one time the Christian was at the mercy of their own sinful human nature, their own passions and desires, their own appetites and lusts. In that state the law simply became something that moved them to sin, and they went from bad to worse, a defeated and frustrated person. But through the gift of God the unlimited power of the Spirit of God entered their life, and, as a result, they experienced victorious living. They were now free from the domination of sin’s clutches.

An Amazing Discovery

Paul goes on to distinguish between two laws in operation: The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus and the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). What is this law of sin and death? The answer is found in Romans 7. Paul understands that the law is holy, just, and good (Rom. 7:12), but there is a real struggle going on in his life. He made up his mind to obey this law of God, but he soon discovered that besides this law outside of him, there was another law inside of him directly contrary to the law outside of him (verse 23). While the law of God outside of him said, “You shall do this good thing and this good thing and this good thing,” the law of heredity or his fallen human nature within him said, “You cannot do the thing you would.”

The law of the fallen nature prevails, and Paul’s attempts to live a righteous life result in total failure. According to Romans 7 he finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into the mire of sin, constrained and dragged down by this law of sin until at last he cries out in Romans 7:24, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me out of this body of death?”

It is notable that the pronoun “I” occurs more than 25 times in the 16 verses of Romans 7:9-24, and the Holy Spirit is not found once. In chapter 8 the scene dramatically changes, and the Holy Spirit is mentioned 20 times, while “I” is mentioned only twice.

In Romans 8 Paul reveals an amazing discovery. In addition to the law of God outside of him beckoning him to righteousness and the law of his members or the law of heredity in his fallen nature, there is another law! It is “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2). This law is about the righteousness you cannot achieve in your own strength by the power of your own will. We cannot achieve the righteousness the law demands on our own because of the weakness of our fallen natures. Hence, Romans 8:3.

There is no problem with the law. As Paul says in Romans 7, it is holy, just, and good. The problem is not with the law. It is with me. Left on my own, I am totally incapable of meeting the law’s demands. I am a debtor to the law I have broken, condemned by my transgressions and held in bondage to my sinful nature. But then Jesus came and met Satan exactly where all humanity has fallen, in the weakness of human flesh.2 Jesus entered the arena of human affairs to fight the battle in common with all humanity. He took our nature to identify with us and came to defeat Satan (see Heb. 2:14-18).

Our Greatest Need

As this saying attributed to Roy Lessin aptly states:

  “If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.
      If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.
      If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.
      If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.
      But our greatest need was freedom from the penalty and power of sin, so God sent us a Savior.”

When we come to the end of our strength, when we fully realize our inability to keep the law of God and in utter helplessness look up to Christ and rely on the Holy Spirit to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, and when we surrender every thought, every purpose, every desire, every action, and all of our appetites and passions to His absolute control, the Holy Spirit takes control of our lives and sets us free from the power of sin that dwells in our very natures and brings us into conformity to the will of God (cf. Rom. 8:4).

As long as we war in our own strength, we fight a losing battle. But in Christ, we are more than conquerors (Gal. 5:16, 17). This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to overcome lifestyle habits that we know are destroying us. This is why it is difficult to overcome our passions and appetites. This is why it is so difficult to overcome un-Christlike attitudes. This is why we struggle to be the people we really want to be and do the things we really want to do. If we battle the enemy in our own strength, we will lose every time. 

There is no reason we should remain in bondage any longer. When Christ dwells in us, we are set free from the tyranny and domination of our sinful natures. Under the old order, it is impossible to do the will of God. We may know what is right, but we do not have the power to do it. We may desire to do the right thing, but we repeatedly fail because we are too weak to accomplish our desires. We may even want to overcome unhealthful habits and negative attitudes, but keep lapsing back to those old habit patterns again and again.

Romans 8 introduces a whole new paradigm. For Paul the Christian life is no longer one of frustrated defeat. It is no longer one of bondage and domination. The Holy Spirit filling the life of the believer has set us free. Romans 8 is the first place in the entire book of Romans that the Holy Spirit enters the argument, and when He does, there is no further talk of defeat. The warfare between the two natures still goes on, but where the Holy Spirit is in control the old nature is compelled to give way. Living in the power of the Holy Spirit does not mean that we will be free from struggle. It does mean that we have the assurance of victory in our struggles. It does not mean that sanctification is some instantaneous mystical event. It does mean that Christ has provided power through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to overcome every temptation (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13).

Here is the promise of God: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Eze. 36:26).

The Spirit’s Power

The Spirit is almighty. He can change the stony heart into a heart of flesh; He can break the strongest negative habits like waves crashing into a sand castle; He can make the most difficult things seem easy, and the mightiest objections melt away like snow in the spring; He can break the shackles, unlock prison doors, and throw the gates of triumph wide open; He can fill up every valley, and make every rough place smooth. He has done it often, and He can do it again.

The power of the Holy Spirit is not limited. The power of the Holy Spirit is not for a select few super saints. The power of the Holy Spirit is not a first-century phenomenon for the early church. The Holy Spirit is like the Lord Jesus, the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is still doing wonders and will do them to the very end.

Jesus has triumphed over the principalities and powers of hell. He was victorious so we can be victorious through His Spirit by His strength. What does it mean to walk in the Spirit? Walking in the Spirit is an expression that the apostle Paul used regularly to describe living in the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is that daily sense that I am His and He is mine. It is that daily hunger to know Him more. It is discovering the joy of daily pouring our hearts out to God.

Several years ago a small village in Africa experienced a powerful Holy Ghost revival. Many in the village were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Lust gave way to purity. Self-indulgence gave way to self-sacrifice. Thievery gave way to honesty. Anger surrendered to kindness, and greed surrendered to giving.

Each of these African converts reportedly had a place out in the thicket where they would pour out their hearts to God daily. The paths through the high grass to these places of prayer became distinctly marked. When anyone began to decline in their devotions, it became apparent to others. They would then remind that individual by saying, “The grass grows on your path yonder.” Is the grass growing on your path? Walking in the flesh, we will be defeated every time. Walking in the Spirit, living in the light of Christ’s presence, we are more than conquerors. The apostle concludes Romans 8 with these hopeful words in verse 37: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” These are words of hope. They give us courage to face the challenges of life. We are not destined to defeat. Victory is ours in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To Paul, life was not a weary, defeated waiting; it was a throbbing, vivid expectation. The Christian is involved in the human situation. Within, Christians must battle with their own evil human nature; without, they must live in a world of death and decay. Nonetheless, Christians do not live only in the world; they also live in Christ. They do not see only the world; they look beyond it to the power of Christ and their ultimate destiny in union with Him through all eternity. They do not see only the consequences of humanity’s sin; by faith they live in the power of the Spirit and the Spirit with them is the eternal pledge of life eternal. Therefore, the keynote of the Christian life is always hope and never despair. The Christian waits, not for death, but for life.

1 https://www.umc.org/en/content/holy-spirit-moments-learning-from-wesley-at-aldersgate, accessed Feb. 29, 2024. (Italics supplied.)

2 See Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,1898, 1940), pp. 49, 25.

Mark A. Finley